- The formal transfer of powers on Monday will make Yildirim the last of 27 prime ministers in Turkey’s modern history and mark a historic change in its governance
- There are parallels with Iran’s 1989 abolition of the post of prime minister, which forced then premier Mir Hossein Mousavi out of the hierarchy in the Islamic Republic
ISTANBUL: Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, whose post is being abolished under Turkey’s new system that concentrates powers under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is the last holder of an office that existed throughout the modern republic and dates back to the Ottoman Empire.
Yildirim, a loyal servant of Erdogan since the 1990s, had held no rancour over the disappearance of the office he has held for two years and campaigned with gusto for a “Yes” in the April 2017 referendum on the new presidential system.
The formal transfer of powers on Monday will make Yildirim the last of 27 prime ministers in Turkey’s modern history and mark a historic change in its governance.
From now on, the president will always chair cabinet meetings, have the power to hire and fire ministers and sit alone at the top of the government’s executive.
Yildirim, 62, who is to be the ruling party’s candidate for speaker of parliament, has acknowledged the significance of the changes but strongly defended them.
“Life goes on. We are going through a change,” he said at a farewell meeting with officials from the prime minister’s office, who will now be employed in different parts of the bureaucracy.
“Systems vary but values are the basis,” he added.
Yildirim, who was born into a poor family in a village in the eastern region of Erzincan and later became a maritime engineer, was tapped by Erdogan when he was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s to head the city’s ferry company.
When Erdogan became prime minister, he appointed his old friend to the key post of transport minister where Yildirim oversaw the ambitious new tunnels, bridges and airports that became a trademark of the Turkish strongman’s rule.
And with Erdogan president and his relationship with his first prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu turning fractious, it was to Yildirim that the leader turned in 2016 to head the government.
Happy to play second fiddle to Erdogan, Yildirim has never showed the ambition or desire to overshadow the president that cost Davutoglu his job.
Far less charismatic than Erdogan but also a genial figure with a love of homespun phrases, Yildirim says he likes to let actions speak. “I don’t speak much but I work like my surname,” said Yildirim, whose name means “lightning.”
He has argued that the changes will prevent situations like the squabbling between president Turgut Ozal and premier Suleyman Demirel that marked the political chaos of the early 1990s.
“I am a seaman,” explained Yildirim. “Two captains can sink a ship. There should be only one captain,” he said.
There are parallels with Iran’s 1989 abolition of the post of prime minister, which forced then premier Mir Hossein Mousavi out of the hierarchy in the Islamic Republic. He would later lead the 2009 anti-government protests.
In Turkey, the position of prime minister goes back to the 14th century with the post of Ottoman grand vizier (sadrazam) who was equivalent to prime minister and on occasion even more powerful than the sultan himself.
The position of top minister remained in place for six centuries until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. When modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became its first president, he made war hero Ismet Inonu his prime minister.
For decades, the post of prime minister was the number one position. Erdogan himself became Turkey’s undisputed leader as prime minister from 2003-2014.
The president had some powers under the former constitution — drawn up after a 1980 military coup — but it became traditional not to exercise them.
Erdogan’s predecessor Abdullah Gul was dubbed by critics “the notary” for his rubber stamping of legislation.
The election of Erdogan as president in 2014, the first popular vote for the head of state, changed everything and he immediately stood traditions on their head.